If you’ve followed the news much lately, then you’ll know that the Iraqi government is on the brink of collapse. This may sound a bit odd at first, given that the country is currently known three less-than-desirable things:
- Having an openly sectarian government that has disenfranchised Sunnis to the point where a group like the Islamic State could take root
- Enjoying endemic governmental corruption and political patronage systems that include thousands of “ghost soldiers”
- Being a constant reminder of the spectacular failure of US military intervention to create stability, over any time horizon
Iraq hasn’t been a success story for quite some time. But lagging oil prices and the war with the Islamic State have matters even harder for the struggling central government. Now the increasingly desperate people in Baghdad are calling for change, and things are likely to get worse before they get better. Indeed, protesters in Iraq’s capital recently managed to push their way into the heavily fortified Green Zone.
You could be forgiven if this all seems a bit familiar. Two years ago after the major city of Mosul fell to the Islamic State, Iraq’s government found itself in a similar leadership crisis under then-Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Leading members of the Obama Administration and other world leaders made it known that they were dissatisfied with the Iraqi government and ready for a change. In combination with domestic unrest, this led Al-Maliki to step down in August of 2014.
Al-Maliki’s replacement, Haider Al-Abadi was supposed to be the solution. Despite being from the same party, he had a reputation for being a moderate, and it was hoped he would finally be able to end some of Iraq’s corruption and incompetence in the face of the Islamic State. Two years later, the war rages on and the corruption has not been cured. Al-Abadi’s efforts have been sincere, by most accounts, but they have proved insufficient. Iraq is as unstable as ever.
Given Iraq’s rather arbitrary national origins at the hands of the British after World War I, this instability might have been inevitable after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But even so, it’s worth noting how US policy sabotaged any chances for Iraqi nationalism during the early days of the occupation.
Shortly after the invasion, the US found itself waging a counterinsurgency campaign against Sunnis in the northwest and Shiite factions in the southeast. Since Iraq’s population is overwhelming Shiite, it was clear that the new leadership of the country would eventually be drawn from the ranks of the Shiite leadership. Broadly speaking, there were two dominant factions. One was led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, the same man who is leading today’s protests, and who, at least rhetorically, tried to bridge the Shia-Sunni divide. The other faction was more explicitly sectarian in nature and heavily influenced by Iran.
Then as now, the US’s relationship with Iran was quite openly hostile. Thus, Al-Sadr would seem to be the obvious favorite. The problem was that Al-Sadr seemed to really believe in Iraqi nationalism–which meant he wanted the US out of Iraq and refused to work with the occupation. So the US went with the Iranian-backed faction that was willing to work with them instead. In effect, the US chose to empower a sectarian, subservient client state instead of allowing a (potentially) unified and independent Iraq to emerge in the post-Saddam era. Today, as Al-Sadr leads throngs in protest of a defunct Iraqi regime, the destabilizing effects of this fateful choice are hard to miss.
For more on Al-Sadr and his outsized role in recent Iraqi history, read Dan Sanchez today at Antiwar.com: